For those of us who came of age in queer Houston, this may come as a shock: Rich's (2401 San Jacinto, 713-759-9606) is now straight. The club where I first danced with a man, where I had my first kiss with my first love, is no longer a gay club. I decide to check out the rumor (please be a rumor) with my friend Wes. "Oh, yeah," he says. "I don't go there anymore on Fridays. It always used to be '80s nights and free cover before 11 p.m., but now it's Latin night or something."
Latin night? Carmen Miranda-drag queens-Latin, or Ricky Martin-pop music-Latin? We're off to investigate. We roll up around eleven. Ten-dollar cover? No problem. We slap on the wristbands, get the hand stamps, make a nice entrance. We look around. The club is still the same two-story beauty with fantastic lighting and a pounding sound system. "We're back into familiar surroundings," I think.
I'm wrong. There's a crew of all-female bartenders behind the main counter, and one of them is even wearing a tube top. The music is more hip-hop than pop, estrogen abounds in giggly groups and most of the guys are following a bizarre, secret, straight-guy dress code: untucked, long sleeved, collared shirts and blue jeans.
My friends and I head upstairs to the Blue Room, an hour before the start of Anita Bump's drag show. A giant screen is showing music videos, and since there are very few of us up there at this early hour, the DJ accommodates our taste: "Heaven" (the 9/11 Remix), "Vogue," "Little Red Corvette."
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Maybe this isn't so different after all. Lithe young things (sans wristbands) pop their pushed-up breasts against each other in time to the music. Well-coiffed long-sleeved-shirt-wearing guys attempt to grind on said women while pounding back their 16-ounce Bud Lights. We danced like this back in the day, didn't we? Kinda?
The DJ switches it up, going from Madonna to Kanye West. Suddenly the room explodes in movement. Just a few minutes ago, wannabe frat-dudes were awkwardly standing around. Now they've all found someone to grind up against.
In comes Anita Bump, probably the first drag queen some of these folks have ever seen. Straight guys come up to pose with her and get their picture taken. To rev up the crowd, the DJ puts on the video for Benny Benassi's "Satisfaction," except the regular video of women in bikinis working with power tools has been spliced with excerpts of a straight couple having sex. Okay, now that is kinda different.
It's time to go mingle. Oh, look, there are some gay guys over there! I walk up to one with spiky hair and arm tattoos.
"You're gay, right?" I smoothly ask. (Best journalist ever.)
We talk, and I ask why he comes here when it's now geared towards straight folk. His response is simple: "It's like anyplace else. South Beach is like 90 percent straight women. It's the same here. They come because they want to be near the gays and be able to get down in an environment that they think is safe."
I head toward two ladies at the bar. They're wearing tight shirts, ripped jeans and sparkly jewelry. If they were men, this would so be the Rich's I remember. "How do y'all even know to come here? Is there a straight newsletter or something?" I ask one of them.
"We're here for a friend's birthday party," she answers, laughing. "I was here two years ago, and I had a great time. There are still plenty of gay guys here; that's why I like it."
I don't have the heart to tell her that out of the 200 or so people there, the number of queers doesn't even reach the double digits. As we chat, one of the interchangeable guys in a long-sleeved shirt comes up behind her. He pushes himself into her back. She pushes back without bothering to turn around, and soon they're dancing. (It looks suspiciously like sex, but they have all their clothes on, so it still qualifies as dancing.)
Anita Bump takes the stage, just as my friend Serena comes back from the bathroom, where "there are four different girls throwing up in there."
We go downstairs to dance, and it's some weird hip-hop. Girls in ripped jeans and tight white shirts are dancing on the bar. We go outside. On the patio is Paris, a guy in his early twenties wearing a big, fake Afro and lots of makeup. "Most of my friends are straight, and they want to come here, so that's where I go. Still, I miss the old Rich's. Oh. I have to go." He jumps up. "My drunk friend is in the car."
It's three-fifteen in the morning, and we're heading out, too. On the way, I ask the blond-haired manager if gay nights are going to happen again, and what's become of the circuit parties that Rich's was so famous for. He keeps working the door. "I don't know. Talk to the DJ. He might know something," he tells me.
We leave the club, and walk by 50 people still thronging at the entrance. All the guys are wearing untucked, long-sleeved shirts. Sigh. I'll miss the old Rich's.
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